Imagery as a management tool

August 25, 2008

, NAIROBI, August 25 – Visualise this: you are at the beach. The sun feels warm on your shoulders. The sand is soft on your feet. There is a nice cool breeze off the water gently blowing in your face. There are white puffy clouds in the sky. You have all afternoon to lie on your blanket, rest, and relax. You hear the waves gently break on shore. Children laugh and shout in the distance. Their voices mix in with music from a radio. You are very relaxed.

The creation of this restful scene in your mind is an example of a technique that can be used to improve management performance. The technique, known as imagery, establishes a scenario in one\’s mind that clearly depicts a set of desired circumstances. By creating a mental image of a desired situation we can better set goals and determine ways of achieving them. In handling human resource capacities, one can act as a catalyst to introduce imagery in their organisation as a part of a total management education and development program.

Imagery has been part of human existence from the earliest times. Primordial humans depicted nature scenes and godly images on cave walls, tombs, and pottery. Literature and art abound with rich imagery. Memory, learning, and creative thinking depend, to a large extent, on imagery. Almost all active human functioning involves an imaginable aspect that helps us anticipate, rehearse, or plan for the experiences we have. More recently, imagery techniques have been used to improve sports performance, reduce pain and phobias, counsel individuals with problems, and in career development. However, until now imagery has seen little use in management, let alone in Kenya but in the rest of the world as well.

Imagery goes by several names including visualisation, conceptualisation, and mental picturing. These terms essentially refer to the same process; creating a mental picture of a situation in one’s mind. In fact, some experts have called imagery "seeing with the mind\’s eye."

Guided imagery is the most common form of imaging used in management. It involves guidance and scripting from external sources, such as a book, or a set of facts to create desired mental images and experiences. These outside factors are cues to stimulate the creation of a mental image. The beach image created previously in one’s mind was elicited because of the words one reads and the associations one makes between those words and similar experiences they have had. A similar image could have been created had these words been spoken to someone else.
With guided imagery, one can use a specific sequence of cues or a script to create a desired set. In the beach scene, one’s image of calmness, restfulness, and peacefulness were the desired result of one’s imagery. The goal is to have one actually place themselves on a beach experiencing the soft breeze and the warm sun. Authors of fiction use this technique throughout their books. In fact, when we read we actually place ourselves in the imaginable context of a story and thus experience the lives of the various characters.

The more complex and abstract the desired response, the more difficult it is to create the desired image; yet, it is precisely with this type of response that imagery can have its greatest payout. For example, think of the task of calming an angry subordinate. Imagery can be used to create a scene in your mind that both helps you to understand the factors involved in an angry confrontation and to use the effective managerial behaviors needed to deal with it. Thus, you might visualise yourself remaining calm in the face of the onslaught while shaping your subordinate\’s actions so that he/she also becomes calm.

There are several forms of imagery, although primary focus in management training is on guided imagery and the several forms in which it may be used. Note that guided imagery can be other-directed or self-directed. In other-directed imagery a coach, group leader, or script writer guides you to create the desired scenario. In self-directed imagery, you assemble the needed data and cues to create your own image set. For example, in self-directed imagery, you may go to a quiet room, shut the door, put on some soft music, dim the lights, and reflect on a problem you are having at work in hopes of being able to create an image to help you solve it.

There is also static and dynamic imagery. In static imagery, a set picture is created, such as a snapshot. Visualising the face of a loved one, such as a spouse, child, or parent is an example of a static image. A dynamic image is akin to a movie in which you picture a sequence of events occurring. When this sequence of events is created over and over
again in your mind you are engaging in mental rehearsal, a form of dynamic imagery.

Mental rehearsal can be used to deal with difficult anticipated future events, such as giving a speech on a controversial topic before an important group. In your mind, you would rehearse the speech, and your presentation style, while anticipating comments and
how you would respond to them. You would repeat this scenario several times prior to the speech so that you\’ll feel fully prepared to manage the experience. You would actually visualise yourself in front of the group, making the speech and responding to questions and comments.

When we rehearse several different sequences we are engaged in mental scenario rehearsal, in which we create "if-then" situations in our mind. We frequently use this technique when considering a sensitive issue with a close friend, spouse, or subordinate. We create "if-then" situations — "if she says A, then I\’ll say B. However, if she says C, then
I\’ll say D." We mentally rehearse alternative conversations in order to prepare ourselves for the anticipated interaction.

Fantasy and dreaming are two additional forms of imagery in which we let our imaginations roam, often free of our conscious control. With a fantasy, we imagine that we are in an unusual or unique situation that is not likely to happen, such as being President or running the world’s most profitable company. When we daydream, we let our mind spontaneously focus upon a pleasant experience, such as being at the beach, sailing, or skiing. Dreaming while asleep is quite vivid for many of us and is usually uncontrollable, although some people can influence what they dream and, after practice, can wake themselves from a dream.

Because imagery is often associated with fantasy and dreaming, it sometimes carries a "flaky" connotation. This is unfortunate, because guided imagery when properly practiced can be a very effective technique for self-enhancement. Consequently, successful approaches emphasize guided imagery instead of fantasy and dreaming forms of imagery.

Imagery is one stepping-stone to the power of positive thinking.

Magu Ngumo is a Lead Consultant with Indicative Solutions, a local management communications and training company. He can be reached at [email protected]  and viewed on


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